Question Period: Access to Safe Drinking Water

By: The Hon. Jane Cordy

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Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, my question is for Senator Gold. I would like to follow up on a question I asked in this chamber on September 30. In my question, I raised concerns about the omission in the most recent Speech from the Throne of the government’s commitment to eliminate all long-term boil water advisories on public water systems in First Nations and other Indigenous communities on reserve by March of 2021.

When I asked if the government is still committed to achieving this goal by that date, you said:

. . . I have been advised that the government is working towards the goal of ending all long-term boil water advisories on First Nations by March 2021. So there is no waffling on that point.

Minister Miller confirmed yesterday this deadline will not be met. He has been very up front, and he said he has a duty to get this done, which is a refreshing comment coming from a minister of any political stripe.

Has the government maintained open and transparent communication with each community regarding project plans? Are they kept fully informed about progress on each project? Are they fully informed and consulted on each project and the timeline?

That sounds like a lot of questions, but basically, I’m wondering whether or not the Indigenous communities have been informed with updates on the progress that is being made for safe drinking water in their communities.

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Senator Cordy, thank you for your question and the important, though disturbing, facts that underlie it. Indeed, the minister was candid and took full responsibility, even though so much of this is out of his personal control for the failure to have fully reached the targets that were promised some years ago and reaffirmed by me in this chamber.

Though not all advisories will be lifted, tremendous progress has been made. The government both remains steadfast in working to end all long-term drinking water advisories and is working in partnership with First Nations communities to ensure that happens. I’ve been advised that in every community with a long-term drinking water advisory, there is a project team, an action plan and collaboration with the community in order to address the particularities of those communities. They vary dramatically, as you would expect, from community to community.

The government recently announced $1.5 billion in new funding. I could break that down for you, but it focuses on the continued work necessary to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in public systems on reserves, and long-term support for maintenance and operations of the infrastructure that is on reserves, and another $500 million to continue work to fund infrastructure projects on reserves.

As of this date, the government has lifted 97 long-term advisories and prevented 171 short-term advisories from becoming long-term, but as the minister pointed out, with regret, there remains work to do.

Senator Cordy: You are correct, Senator Gold. The government did lift 97 long-term boil advisories, and they deserve to be commended for these efforts. There are 59 advisories still in effect, but you’re absolutely right, they do deserve credit. That’s a lot of long-term boil advisories lifted. However, there is still work to be done.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every facet of our lives in Canada, and the minister has stated that it has affected the completion of many of the water projects in Indigenous communities. Has the pandemic also hampered the planning process?

I did listen to the minister yesterday. He spoke about the challenges of doing the work itself. Has it affected the planning process, or can you assure us that the plans are ready to go in each community, or in how many communities, so that the next step in the spring, hopefully, the shovels are ready to go in the ground?

Senator Gold: Senator, thank you. I wish I had the answers and that the answers were that there was absolutely no breakdown or delay in planning caused by the pandemic. I don’t know the answer, but the truth is that this pandemic has slowed many things down, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that some of the planning in some communities may be compromised.

I don’t know the specific answer. What I do know is that the government remains steadfast and committed to solving this problem, as it has been trying to do and continues to try to do. I know that it’s working closely with each individual community to find the best solutions and to move as quickly as possible under these rather difficult circumstances. Thank you, again, for your question.

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